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On the Labour of Animals

by Dinesh Wadiwel on August 28, 2018

The place of animals in relation to left movements has been highly uncertain. On one hand, there has been at least some historical ambivalence from the organised left around animal welfare as essentially a bourgeois pursuit, something that was reflected in Marx’s brief comments on the issue in Capital, Vol.1 (also on this see Gunderson 2011). There has also been a deeper problem in how the left has conceptualised animals within capitalism, particularly the question of whether animals labour, and how this is understood. Again, this problem has some fundamental roots within Marx’s philosophy: it is well known that the 1844 Manuscripts very clearly articulate a supposed fundamental difference between how humans and animals labour, attributing a capacity for conscious creative work only to humans.

A number of scholars have made admirable attempts to both challenge Marx’s anthropocentricism and imagine animals as labouring subjects, including Ted Benton, Donna HarawayJocelyne Porcher and Kendra Coulter. I believe much of this work is in sympathy with recent green scholarship which has attempted to understand the relations between capitalism and non human natures, such as the recent work of Jason W. Moore.

What strikes me as curious in surveying the small but growing work on animals, labour and their relation to capital, is the lack of analysis of the specific value-role of animals, not merely as commodities but as producers of value (i.e. labourers). I should say that I am less interested in the question “Do animals labour?” From my view this question misses something fundamental. The point of Marx’s analysis is to understand the value-role of labour within the context of capitalism. In other words, the important question is “What is the value of animal labour power?” Indeed, as Brian Whitener has recently pointed out, there is a need for a developed “animal labour theory of value”.

In my recent article in South Atlantic Quarterly I attempt precisely this sort of analysis of how animals might function as producers of value. While it may be tempting to begin this analysis by examining animals who are deployed within production as instruments of traction – such as the continued use of draught animals within small hold farming globally – my object of analysis is the much more complicated problem of human utilisation of animals for food.

It may be disorienting to imagine food animals as labourers. For example, how might we conceptualise a chicken kept in a small cage, intensively fed, and ultimately destined to be slaughtered for food, as a “worker”? However, recent theoretical developments in conceptualising labour offer some useful tools for thinking about this problem. Scholars such as Melinda Cooper and Les Beldo have theorised the body and its metabolism as sources of surplus. In addition, feminist labour theorists have explored how a work on one’s own body within reproductive labour functions within circuits of capital: for example Amrita Pande’s analysis of commercial surrogacy.

Building on this work, my argument is that we can understand the labour of food animals by comprehending the unique way capital positions these animals as neither just a raw commodity to be worked on, nor as purely a source of labour, but as a combination of both. That is, a combination of constant and variable capital. Understanding animals as this hybrid allows us to gain a fuller picture of what these animals mean to capitalism: they are a special  raw material that circulates (that enters production as one commodity and leaves as another) and can be relied upon to labour upon themselves through their own metabolic processes and thus produce value within production processes.

Thinking about animals as a hybrid of constant and variable capital gives us some useful insights into the lives of animals within capitalist production.  At least one promising aspect of this analysis is that it allows us to re-narrate the transformations in industrial agriculture that we have seen in the twentieth-century and beyond from the standpoint of both human and animal labour. The implications for human labour of the arrival of the factory farm are reasonably clear from the standpoint of Marx’s theory. Intensification of production and the increasing deployment of automated processes, aim at displacing human labour – that is increasing relative surplus value by reducing human labour time. But this story of the arrival of the factory farm requires more nuance if we are understand animals as labourers. While the industrialisation of animal agriculture aimed at a relative reduction in human labour time, it simultaneously expanded animal labour on a massive scale, since then an explosion in the production of animal products was necessary (on this expansion, see Weis). In this way, labour time was reoriented between species – human labour time is reduced, animal labour increases as animal products massively expand.

However the same drives towards expanding surplus value, whether in an absolute or relative sense, informed the transformation of animal labour that has been seen over the last century. Recently Raj Patel and Jason W. Moore have pointed out the specific history of poultry in industrial agriculture, and the success of producers in using selective breeding to reducing growing time and increase bird weight. We could understand these developments in industrial agriculture as driven by the need to reduce human labour time in production, or reduce the costs of food for human workers (that is reduce the cost of the means of human labour reproduction). However a focus on animal labour shows us that capital seeks to seize all labour (human and non human) and increase its relative efficiency. For human labour this has often meant the deployment of technologies to reduce labour time, sometimes completely replacing human labour with automated processes. But the dynamics are different for animals as their labour is essential since they are also the product. They cannot be replaced. Instead, lives have been shortened in order to reduce the costs of animal labour and selective breeding has been used to increase the meat that can be yielded. The animal that used to be slaughtered at 12 weeks old now can be slaughtered at 6 weeks, and now weighs more than it ever did before, producing more meat for consumption.

A particular interest for me is trying to understand how animals as labourers resist and exert agency, and how this in turn shapes what production processes looks like. The expansion of constant capital, including machines, in intensive agriculture has displaced many human workers. However it has created a different relationship between technologies and animals within agriculture. This is because human labour in animal agriculture was often about dominating and coercing animals to make them work (think of stockmen and stockwomen, whip in hand, herding cattle). New technologies which replaced humans would need to take over this specific coercive role. Thus the drive to improve the efficiency of human labour has informed attempts to create replacement technologies that must coerce animals and must deal with animal resistance. An example of such a technology is the chicken harvesting machine, which aims to “save” human workers (often highly exploited and precarious workers) the job of trying to catch chickens before they are sent to slaughter. This work is usually dangerous, since chickens do not want to be caught (see Quandt et al). The “harvesting machines” which are replacing human labour are designed to confront and deal with animal resistance to being caught. In a sense this tells us something about the unique structural position of animals under capitalism – they produce under conditions of domination, and efficiencies in production will aim not necessarily to replace them, but instead to more effectively counter their resistance in order to make them more productive.

In my view asking how animals are positioned within capitalism is useful for thinking about what the left project is and who it represents. A stronger analysis of the structural position of animals within capitalism may elucidate the links between human and non human labour and open up opportunities for a broader understanding of labour struggle that includes recognition of animals and the violence we expose them to. Certainly my hope is that we can produce a politics which challenges the way capital has come to dominate all life, human and non human.

* Thanks owed to Adam Morton for the edits on this piece and the continuing encouragement; the Past & Present Reading Group at the University of Sydney that has provided a wonderful space to think through ideas; and ex-political economy honours student Eliza Littleton, for many chats over the years.

Dinesh Wadiwel
Dinesh Wadiwel is a senior lecturer in human rights and socio-legal studies at the University of Sydney, with a background in social and political theory. He is author of the monograph The War against Animals (Brill, 2015) and co-editor with Matthew Chrulew of the collection Foucault and Animals (Brill, 2016). Dinesh is co-convener of the Human Animal Research Network (HARN) at the University of Sydney:
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  • ElenaGarcia
    August 31, 2018 at 9:12 am

    Interesting but leaves out the major increasing of focus of farming animals as commodifying them. As factory farming takes over production, animals are increasingly regarded merely as commodities, products to be produced ASAP to maximise profits. All the principles of good husbandry, breeding for good temperament and good health, are increasingly pushed to the side as factory farming cuts costs to a minimum by crowding them together and breeding animals that can’t function or breed properly because they are bred for maximum weight and quickest turnover. Sustainable regenerative farmers who treat their animals with respect and work with them for sustainable land management can increasingly not compete with price undercutting by these inhumane factory farms.
    Yes, we need to regard animals as partners in sustainable land management. Kind treatment, care and feeding, protection of young from cruel predator attacks, medical assistance when needed, should all be part of their “wages”. But consumption of animal products and surplus individuals, in a humane manner, is a part of their social contract.

  • Dinesh Wadiwel
    September 2, 2018 at 10:57 am

    Thanks so much for the comment. While I absolutely share your concerns about commodification and the emergence of intensive animal agriculture, I am not sure I entirely agree with your analysis .

    Commodification of animals began long before capitalism . Animals have been bought and sold for millennia – they have been central to many economies. Their role within economies was also historically complex because animals would not only appear as objects with a use value for humans to be bought and sold, but also because they had been used as money / currency within exchange systems – something noted by Marx’in his discussion of money in Grundrisse and elsewhere.

    The aim of the article though is to discuss the role of animals within the logic of value under capitalism, and not just understand animals in their potential role as products to be sold as consumption items. Capitalism is unique in the way it systematically captures the value that labour creates. If we acknowledge that animals also create value, then this allows us to see the industrialisation of animal agriculture in a different and productive way. It also allows us to move away from the politics of consumption (eg. what we eat) to the politics of production.

    A number of commentators have made claims that animals have an implied “social contract”with us – a social contract that often implies systematic control over movement, reproduction and nutrition, and inevitable slaughter for consumption. Leftists are highly suspicious of implied “social contracts” in the human sphere – these frequently hide deep forms of exploitation and domination, which are conveniently assumed to be “natural.” With all respect, I feel we should be equally suspicious of “social contracts”when they are applied to human-animal relations.

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